With a facelift, an ex­tra 50Nm of torque and a new six-speed gear­box, we put Isuzu’s D-max to the tow test


Tow tester Dean Evans puts Isuzu’s rugged D-max ute un­der the ham­mer. How did it per­form?

WITH UTES BE­COM­ING IN­CREAS­INGLY POP­U­LAR with fam­i­lies and dis­plac­ing wag­ons and SUVS as the all-pur­pose ve­hi­cle, the likes of the Ranger, Hilux and Colorado have gone from rugged, com­pro­mised work­horses to ful­lye­quipped, dressed up city and fam­ily run-arounds.

And though there’s a range of mod­els across the makes, there’s a dis­tinct style to each tier that iden­ti­fies it­self and pushes it­self to­wards a par­tic­u­lar buyer.

Isuzu’s D-max is built, mar­keted and drives like an old-school truck. And though that’s hardly sur­pris­ing from a truck man­u­fac­turer, the D-max’s early 2017 facelift has brought a range of fea­tures that bring it more in line with what the mod­ern ute has be­come.

Along with a new grille, daytime run­ning lights and tail­gate and other up­dates, the RT87 D-max in­tro­duces new trans­mis­sions.

They in­clude a six-speed man­ual trans­mis­sion that was fit­ted to the 4x4 Dou­ble Cab LS model that we’ve eval­u­ated in this month’s tow test. The LS sits one rung un­der the top-spec LS-T in the D-max range and lists at $56,990.

The LT87 has al­ready helped boost Isuzu ute sales, with the D-max now slip­ping inside the top 10 pas­sen­ger ve­hi­cle sales for the first half of 2017, af­ter fin­ish­ing just out­side it in 2016.

In new ute sales, the D-max sits in sixth po­si­tion, in a bat­tle with Nis­san’s Navara, but it’s part of the lead­ing pack of utes that set the tow­ing stan­dard of 3500kg.

LCV mag­a­zine last tested the D-max in late 2015, so it was good to reac­quaint our­selves with the Isuzu – and we were quickly re­minded of its truck-like feel, and mar­ket­ing.

Though it has a list of mod-cons, in­clud­ing cruise con­trol, nav­i­ga­tion, Blue­tooth, side­steps and 17-inch al­loys, it still has that util­i­tar­ian feel and pur­pose.

And Isuzu doesn’t apol­o­gise for that – quite the con­trary, the ute’s truck her­itage is a strong part of its mar­ket­ing cam­paign.

But there are still mi­nor nig­gles that other utes have over­come in re­cent years. For in­stance, the D-max has lim­ited stor­age space,

specif­i­cally open places to dump the sta­ples of phone, wal­let and keys.

How­ever, there are plenty of lid­ded stor­age ar­eas in the cen­tre con­sole, above the glove­box and the dash­board top, among oth­ers dot­ted around the cab.

The lack of auto head­lights is also a re­minder of the past, lack­ing an auto mode, or even auto-off when the key is re­moved. Hav­ing to man­u­ally move the head­light switch on and off ev­ery time just feels so an­ti­quated.

An­other idio­syn­crasy is the large temperature dial, which at night re­flects into the rear win­dow, into the in­te­rior mir­ror, into the driver’s eyes. Not a ma­jor is­sue, granted, but cer­tainly a mi­nor dis­trac­tion.

Steer­ing is ad­justable for tilt only, not reach, but on the plus side, there’s a high seat­ing po­si­tion with great vi­sion. The D-max also has a big eight-inch touch-screen, an in­tu­itive nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem, and a pair of handy USB ports for ex­ter­nal audio and a 1A port for charg­ing.

So there are frills, but es­sen­tially this is a ma­chine that is de­signed to work and pay the bills.

Part of that feel­ing is the en­gine. It’s a big 3.0-litre four-cylin­der that is used across the en­tire range. It’s a com­mon-rail tur­bod­iesel that sports the same 130kw as the pre­vi­ous model, but ben­e­fits from an ex­tra 50Nm of peak torque, avail­able be­tween 2000 and 2200rpm.

The ex­tra torque has been achieved by sev­eral mi­nor in­jec­tor, me­chan­i­cal and elec­tronic up­dates. The en­gine is rat­tly – and there’s no mis­tak­ing it’s a diesel – but it’s one of the big­gest four-cylin­ders on sale, and it eats up chal­lenges.

Our tow­ing chal­lenge for the D-max was $65,000 worth of 2011 Leisure Line 6.1-me­tre car­a­van, four-berth with twin sin­gle beds, thanks to Ohaupo Car­a­vans who loaned it for our test­ing.

Equipped with beds, kitchen, mi­crowave, TV, toi­let and shower, it was one of Ohaupo’s stock of car­a­vans that of­fer re­lax­ing get­aways by sim­ply hitch­ing up and head­ing off.

At just un­der 2000kg, add in our gear, an ex­tra pas­sen­ger and full grey and clean wa­ter tanks, and we’re look­ing at just over 2000kg, which should be a rel­a­tive walk in the park for the D-max.

That weight is around 60 per­cent of the ute’s to­tal tow­ing ca­pac­ity, and around 85 per­cent of its ca­pac­ity with­out elec­tric brakes.

Ar­riv­ing in Ohaupo, we’re eas­ily hooked up within a few min­utes and on the road, bound to­wards Raglan, on a route of­fer­ing a mix of sub­ur­ban, mo­tor­way and coun­try roads, with a few de­cent hill climbs and de­scent tests.

The first ob­vi­ous clue to the D-max’s grunt is how it pow­ers away with barely a change in pace. I just wit­nessed the car­a­van get hooked up min­utes ear­lier, but had to take a cur­sory glance in the mir­rors to en­sure it was still at­tached.

The low-speed torque and re­sponse of the en­gine and the con­trol of the man­ual gears al­lows the D-max the lux­ury of ef­fort­less ac­cel­er­a­tion.

Waikato’s wet win­ter means we’re be­ing poured down upon, though as we hit the mo­tor­way, pow­er­ing up to 90km/h with­out a hint of hin­drance.

The gear­box slots into fifth, then sixth, and cruise con­trol is ac­ti­vated, with revs sit­ting on 1600 in sixth. And noth­ing is thought of it un­til ar­riv­ing into Hamil­ton 20 min­utes later.

In fact, it’s def­i­nitely a bet­ter ute with weight on the back, as it calms down the ride qual­ity which is bouncy and un­set­tled when un­laden.

That’s the im­pres­sive as­pect of the D-max – and of any good tow­ing ve­hi­cle – that it does the job with­out is­sue, with the Leisure Line track­ing straight and only mak­ing its ex­tra width felt as the road nar­rows in places.

From Hamil­ton, we head west to­wards the hills, giv­ing the D-max a chance to work a bit harder.

As we reach a long, medium grade hill, it pow­ers up in sixth, but as revs drop to 1400rpm, a down­shift to fifth adds an­other 200rpm.

And though it’s steady and just hold­ing speed, an­other down­shift to fourth bumps revs back over 2000rpm and the D-max takes off.

The en­gine just loves work­ing hard at low revs, and though 2000rpm is the magic num­ber in the top-two gears, in the lower gears it’ll drop to 1200rpm be­fore re­quir­ing a down­shift. It then pulls cleanly to the 4000rpm red­line.

The shift ac­tion is quick and light enough to shuf­fle be­tween ra­tios at speed. It’s not the best box around, and se­lect­ing third some­times felt like shift­ing a broom han­dle through a bucket of cricket balls, but

with the right revs and right shift strength, it proved ca­pa­ble with­out be­ing re­mark­able.

As we reach Raglan, it’s re­ally been an easy trip, the car­a­van’s width the only real driv­ing con­cern.

As the weather clears enough for some pho­tos and video (see our Face­book page), the fuel con­sump­tion gauge re­veals we’ve in­creased use­age around 20 per­cent: mo­tor­way miles were show­ing around 8.2 litres/100km/h be­fore tow­ing, and 10.4 litres/100km while tow­ing.

We also put the D-max up against our per­for­mance tim­ing gear and it proved it­self more than com­pe­tent, with 0-60km/h in 4.6 sec­onds, on the way to 11.2 sec­ond for the 100km/h sprint.

My big­gest grievance came with the six-speed gear­box, specif­i­cally hav­ing re­verse gear slot along­side first gear.

Toy­ota did this many years ago with the first six-speed Cel­ica, and quickly rec­ti­fied it with a lock-out col­lar.

But too many times than I care to count, I found my­self ac­ci­dently se­lect­ing re­verse gear in­stead of first.

Edi­tor Mike also found the same prob­lem, and it’s par­tic­u­larly worse when un­der duress, such as a three-point turn, or rushed se­lec­tion. Though there’s a warn­ing beeper, if the ra­dio is on, or there’s other road/am­bi­ent noise, it’s easy to miss.

Some may never have the prob­lem, or bet­ter still, choose the new six-speed auto. And maybe they won’t be both­ered by the man­ual head­light switch, the temperature dis­play re­flect­ing in the mir­ror, or the un­laden ride qual­ity, the rat­tly diesel en­gine noise or the lack of open cabin pock­ets.

And for driv­ers who can look past largely triv­ial is­sues like that, there is a rugged, mas­cu­line, ex­tremely com­pe­tent and com­fort­able work­horse in the D-max.

With nine mod­els in the range, from sin­gle, space and dou­ble cab, to 4x2 and 4x4, there’s plenty of choice in Isuzu’s D-max line-up , with all mod­els us­ing the same 3.0-litre en­gine and gear­boxes.

We came away pleas­antly sur­prised and im­pressed by the D-max LS’S tow­ing abil­ity. It’s cer­tainly nowhere near maxed out.

Our thanks to Ohaupocar­a­ for sup­ply­ing the car­a­van for this test.

Above: D-max made light work of tow­ing com­bined load of around – or just over – two tonnes. Fac­ing page: Lat­est ver­sion of Isuzu’s D-max ute gets re­vised grille and head­light treat­ment, new six-speed man­ual gear­box and Euro 5 en­gine.

Ro­tary dial con­trol cabin temperature. Air-con­di­tion­ing and ven­ti­la­tion switches are mounted in cir­cu­lar dis­play.

Large and clear rev­ers­ing cam­era made it easy to line up the ute’s tow­ball with the car­a­van’s hitch.

Tow load for our test was a Leisure Line 6.1-me­tre car­a­van, loaned by Ohaupo Car­a­vans.

D-max LS has a lock­able tail­gate.

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